The Most Revealing Clue in Difficult Conversations

How to understand what a person is not saying

People don’t always tell the truth.

Sometimes they alter facts or withhold information intentionally. Most times, they don’t know how to articulate what they are feeling or how to clearly define their point of view. Research shows we aren’t very self-aware.1

Or, they might be aware of their cover up, but are uncomfortable disclosing embarrassing thoughts or sharing an idea that could trigger an emotional reaction in you.

Their unspoken beliefs can be the key to resolving the problems they face. You can encourage people to express what is on their mind by helping them feel safe and being curious about the emotions they are expressing. The most revealing clue you can notice and ask about is a shift in emotional expression.

When coaching people through problems, using reflective statements can be your best tool.


What is reflective communication?

To help people stop and think about their thinking, summarize what they tell you and ask if this best describes what is going on.

To help them stop and think about their feelings, notice and share a shift in their emotions, which helps them clarify what assumptions, conflicts, or fears might be blocking them from seeing what they can do.

Reflecting techniques go beyond hearing their words. Stop analyzing their words and thinking about what you want them to do. When your mind is open, you can best notice when they shift their…

  • facial expressions
  • vocal speed and pitch
  • posture
  • emotional energy

Reflecting these shifts can help them express what they have been holding back.

For example, you might notice when they…

  • Look down or away as they change their tone of voice
  • Hesitate or become silent
  • Get louder or more animated
  • Change the subject
  • Stress the words “always” or “never” when describing other people’s intentions or behavior.
  • Use the word “really” accompanied by a heightened tone that accentuates a declaration, such as “what I really want” or “what I really can’t stand.”

Empathy is not an emotion. You experience empathy when you recognize, understand, and appreciate how someone is feeling. Listening so you can reflect what you hear and observe increases your empathy. Open your mind with curiosity and your heart with warm regard. You can then sense what they are feeling as well see shifts in expression.2


Reflecting emotional shifts

Reflecting means you become the mirror so the person can see and hear what they are expressing for themselves. This can be jarring. It can also be the best way to get them to think about what they are believing and assuming, what is getting in their way, and what they are willing to do now that they better understand their situation.

Here are some tips to help you be a clear mirror:

  1. Summarize what was expressed as well as said. Start your sentences with “I noticed…” “I heard…” or “I sense…” Then ask if you got it right. Willingly accept when you are wrong. If you are wrong, they will correct you, which leads them to think more deeply about their thoughts and feelings.
  2. Be curious about their reactions. If you aren’t sure what the shift in their expressions means, ask. Ron Carucci suggests sharing your observation and then inviting the person to tell you what is happening internally.3Carucci suggests using statements like, “Tell me how I should interpret your silence” and “It seems that what I just said made you think about something else. Would you share that with me?”
  3. Question beliefs and assumptions. Ask about the beliefs and assumptions behind the person’s words. When the person is blaming or criticizing other people’s behavior, ask what they think is motivating these actions. Then ask them if anything else could be driving the behavior. Also, ask if the behavior of others was meant to hurt them. Maybe the offenders are reacting to something else? This helps the person realize when they are taking someone else’s words and actions too personally. Helping the person reflect on their beliefs and assumptions can assist them in seeing their problems in a new light.
  4. Recognize conflicting values and desires. People are often stuck when what they want differs from what they should or are expected to do. They will show increasing frustration while they describe the situation. They will use use the word “but” when you point out the apparent conflict, saying something like, “Yes, I know I want to do something else, but…”. Don’t push them to choose. Help them to see that there might be many more options to work toward than just choosing one option over the other.

Check your own discomfort, fear, or judgment to create a safe space

You need to hold a safe space for people to freely express themselves. They must trust you won’t judge them. Reflection works best when you accept how people see and feel, no matter if you think they don’t have the full picture and their emotions are misplaced. Don’t make them wrong. Hope they will see things differently after your conversation. You can best do this when you care about the person and sincerely want to understand and help.

If you notice your own discomfort with their emotions, breathe and relax so you can stay present. If your body tightens up with judgment, take another breath and slowly exhale while you clear your mind. Remember to respect the human in front of you who is trusting you to help them solve a dilemma.



1 Erich C. Dierdorff and Robert S. Rubin. “We Are Not Very Self-Aware, Especially at Work.”, March 12, 2015

2 Marcia Reynolds. “How to Make a Real Difference with Your Presence.”, Nov. 24, 2015

3 Ron Carucci, “4 Ways to Get Honest, Critical Feedback from Your Employees.”, Nov. 23, 2017

Originally published at Psychology Today

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